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Tone Tip: Set It Up

Dave Hunter | 09.10.2008

That’s right, set it up. Or, if need be, get someone else to set it up for you. Whether you set up your guitar yourself, or have it done by a professional tech, a good set-up is crucial to achieving not only optimum playability but maximum tone too. By “set-up,” we usually mean a combination of things that all work toward keeping your guitar in good condition, somewhat like the full tune-up you occasionally give your car. On a guitar, a full set-up generally includes adjusting neck pitch, string height, and intonation, and pickup height relative to strings. It might also include conditioning the volume and tone controls (potentiometers), selector switch, and jack with a squirt of contact cleaner/lubricant, and lightly sanding―or “stoning”―the frets to remove slight divots and uneven spots that have emerged with heavy playing.

Let’s elaborate a little on the benefits of keeping your guitar ship-shape. I say keeping a guitar in good condition is important not only for achieving “optimum playability but maximum tone too” because a guitar that is poorly set up just won’t ring true. Without proper intonation, you might think you are in tune according to your electric tuner, but your guitar will never be optimally in tune with the bigger picture—which is to say, the harmonics that interact to create the lush, vibrant tonal spectrum of any great guitar sound will not be complementary to each other, will not interact in a musically beneficial fashion. Slight dissonances and dead spots will clank against each other―amid full chords in particular, and especially further up the neck―and the overall effect will be an oddly harsh sounding performance, even on a guitar that seems to tune up fine on the open strings. Former Gibson president Ted McCarty developed the famed Tune-o-matic (or ABR1) bridge precisely for this reason, and it remains one of the most influential bridge designs to this day. The unit, as seen on a Les Paul Standard or SG Standard, for example, among many others, allows broad adjustment for each individual string saddle to achieve accurate intonation of each string, and easy height adjustment for a good, balanced overall string height for your playing style (the bridge is curved to match the radius of the guitar’s fingerboard, so individual saddle height adjustment isn’t necessary). Other, more primitive bridge designs, such as the “wraparound” bridge on the Les Paul Junior or 1954 Les Paul Goldtop VOS don’t have individually adjustable saddles, although a “good enough for rock and roll” compromise of overall intonation can be set by adjusting the whole bar. This might seem imperfect, sure, but these guitars are loved by many players for their raw vibe and appealing simplicity nevertheless.

In combination with good intonation, proper adjustment of neck pitch and string height, both to suit your playing style and to allow the strings to ring freely, will also work toward maximum tone. Some players who like a very low action for fast playing styles will constantly fight buzzing strings and compromised tone in the name of pure speed. Working with a slightly higher yet still smooth and fast action lets the strings ring louder and clearer, and therefore also enables the guitar’s body and neck woods to resonate the way they were designed to, all of which increases your tone dramatically (I’m not talking way high here, but an action low enough for good speed, and high enough to eliminate buzzing). Get all of these elements of a good set-up just right―good intonation, and optimum neck pitch and string height (which, combined, constitute what we refer to as “action”)―and your harmonics will ring true, you’ll have a bigger, more melodious sound from the instrument as a whole, and your guitar’s entire voice will feel more at one with itself. On top of it all, you’ll notice a considerable improvement in your guitar’s sustain too.

Beyond the mechanical aspects of a good set-up, it’s also worth remembering to keep your guitar clean. This might seem a purely cosmetic issue, but grimy frets and fingerboard, rusted bridge saddles, and gunky nut slots will seriously hamper both tone and playability. The build up of crud in pickups, controls, and switches will also lead to their eventual failure—possibly mid-solo during that big gig—and will very often hamper their performance along the way, by impeding their ability to pass along a full, clean guitar signal. This is something you can definitely do yourself, with the aid of a soft, lint-free cloth and a few quality cleaning products such as Gibson’s Luthier’s Choice Polish, Fretboard Conditioner and String Cleaner/Lubricant or comprehensive Vintage Reissue Restoration Kit. As for the set-up itself, most players can also learn to achieve good results themselves. Every new Gibson comes with a comprehensive Owner’s Manual or instructive flyers that guide you through bridge saddle adjustments, truss rod adjustment, and more. When in doubt, take your instrument to an Authorized Gibson Repair Center, and let a professional put your guitar into perfect playing condition.